I've been asked what it's like to return to congregational ministry after six years of full-time teaching. Do I note any changes in the church?
One thing I can say is that denominations mean less to church members than they did a few years ago. Maybe I should say "even less", because interest and commitment have been declining for quite some time. Where congregations are growing it's because people are choosing the local church first. If they stick around, they may find out about the denomination.
I don't mean loyal, life-long Presbyterians like me don't care if we're Presbyterian any more. In many congregations attention has shifted away from the structures and concerns of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the life and needs of the local church. This is reflected in what I've called the Church Positive: congregations that are engaging in mission and partnerships that make real differences in their neighbourhoods; local churches that are working for change in the world by refugee sponsorship, and supporting PWS&D and other NGOs, often at the expense of contributions to denominational budgets. It also appears in the Church Negative: congregations focused on survival, resistant to change, closed to insight from outside, and often angry at their denominations. My extensive experience in the United Church of Canada over the past six years tells me this isn't unique to our PCC.
People in the pews and at Session tables have always asked what the denomination, or "Head Office" does for their church. Well, let's see. The Presbyterian Church in Canada, through Presbyterians Sharing...
- supports education for ministers and other church leaders.
- supports overseas partners in mission, keeps us informed about that work, and holds us to our commitment to be a church that is engaged with the world.
- supports new ministries in Canada, including new congregations, and missions that are finding new ways to do their work.
- enables very small and remote congregations and ministries across the country to continue in worship and fellowship.
- provides educational, administrative, and problem-solving resources to congregations.
That's not a complete list, but it covers some very important things that are, or can be, of benefit to any congregation.
I'm not convinced we need all the structures that have been in place for so many years to keep on offering that support to local congregations. I'm also aware that many congregations seek and find support from sources outside the PCC. They also aim their support for mission in many directions, local and international. Some do this in the expansive spirit of the Church Positive. Some in the oppositional way of the Church Negative. Either way, they don't rely on the denomination as much as they might have a few years ago.
I'm encouraged when local congregations cooperate with nearby churches, across denominational lines. The practical truth is that Glenview has more in common with nearby congregations in North Toronto than with other churches in East Toronto Presbytery. (The same could be said about Armour Heights and Calvin, and their neighbourhoods.) I'm discouraged when congregations feel obliged to "keep it Presbyterian" and miss opportunities to share with their neighbours and friends.
On the national level I believe the time came a good while ago for denominations to share administration of all essential services. Canadian churches already cooperate in aid and development programs and avoid duplication of effort. In the end, the cost saving might not be great, but the witness to church and world would be positive, encouraging congregations to follow suit.
So... Do I care less about my denomination than I did six years ago? I am a Presbyterian by birth, baptism, nurture, education, and adult choice. If there's such a thing as a Presbyterian temperament, that's who I am. I believe our Presbyterian / Reformed witness is an essential voice in the chorus of the worldwide church. I also believe that to be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical, and to be open to reforming and rebuilding the church's structures to follow God's mission in every age. I see our collective ability to carry on the PCC's business-as-usual declining, fast. I don't grieve that as I did a few years ago, when I first saw it. After all, God always has something new in store for us.